Measuring the human errors
After the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert accompanied Greenpeace members on their trip to Fukushima on board the Rainbow Warrior to sample the levels of radioactivity in the seawater. This is his experience.
Outside my window the sky is summer blue, clear, beautiful. There is sea all around me, quite calm. Calm enough that within a few minutes I will be out on it in an inflatable boat, with my cameras, photographing.
It seems idyllic, but the reality is more worrying. I’m on a Greenpeace ship, the iconic ‘Rainbow Warrior II’, and I’m 50km off the coast of Fukushima, Japan. Fukushima, a previously ordinary city in Japan, now infamous around the world for the nuclear catastrophe that has been unfolding since March 11th, when a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, and knocked out the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Four nuclear reactors were critically damaged, three of which are believed to have suffered partial nuclear meltdowns. The experts are still analysing and debating, but it is clear the situation remains far from stable.
Within a few minutes I’m in the ship’s medical room, where I change out of my clothes, down to my shorts, and into a white scientific looking Tyvek suit. I move up a deck, to the bridge wing of the ship, and put on a pair of thin surgical gloves. I then get into one more suit, a thicker, heavier “haz-mat” suit (hazardous materials protective suit). A colleague uses duct tape to securely tape the suit around my waterproof boots and around the wrists of my suit to the waterproof gloves. I’m now almost ready, and I’m now already sweating within the waterproof suits. And all I wish to do is go out photographing.
The suits my colleagues and I are wearing, and the precautions we are taking, are just that- precautions. Our ship is up-wind of the plant and it’s radioactive emissions, and we have Geiger counters, personal dosimeters, all monitoring the air to make sure it is safe
Lastly I put on my air-filtering mask, and eye goggles, pull my hoods up and step out of the homemade blue tarpaulin room which serves as a decontamination room. I leave the ship and get into an inflatable boat, with three colleagues and we head out to predetermined waypoints in the ocean, points which have been agreed in advance by Greenpeace with the Japanese government. And there, at those waypoints, the colleagues I am with conduct collection of samples of sea water and seaweed which will be analysed by Greenpeace and independent laboratories in Europe, for radioactive contamination from the nuclear plant 50km away.
The suits my colleagues and I are wearing, and the precautions we are taking, are just that- precautions. Our ship is up-wind of the plant and it’s radioactive emissions, and we have Geiger counters, personal dosimeters, all monitoring the air to make sure it is safe. So far on our trip it has been, but when out on the water we take no chances. We do find seaweed, and we gather samples of water from 10 metres down. We do an initial check of it at sea, before sealing it in clean Tupperware boxes and flasks. The time and coordinates are noted, as I, sweating in my protective suits, photograph the team at work. I remove my goggles to be able to get my eye close to my viewfinder, but I keep everything else firmly on. I don’t want to take chances.
I check my exposures, and shoot my images, encumbered by all I am wearing. My colleagues beside me analyse their seawater and seaweed samples and confirm our fears that the radiation is present. Around me the sea water laps at our boat, and above me the sun shines, and the crystal clear blue sky looks beautiful.